‘There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame’ at Theatre Britain’s panto
Ivan Jones, who plays the Dame in the company’s “Beauty & The Beast,” shares why he embraces the outrageous makeup, hoops and heels.
Stewart F. House/Special Contributor
Stewart F. House/Special Contributor
Ivan Jones was playing Puss in Theatre Britain’sPuss in Boots when the company’s artistic director, Sue Birch, told him:
“I think you’ve got a little Dame in you.”
It was a compliment — and a challenge.
The Dame, who is played by a man in flamboyant women’s clothing themed to the show, is the star of the British panto, an annual British holiday favorite produced by theaters all over England.
The interactive comic melodrama, which unlike the American pantomime is anything but silent, features a fractured fairy tale packed with puns so bad they’re good. Men are cast as women and women as men, a ghost pops out for no particular reason, there’s a black-light scene, and the cast talks to the patrons and leads them in a singalong.
Jones, who is starring as Mrs. T Time in Theatre Britain’s world premiere of Beauty & the Beast at the Cox Building Playhouse in Plano, learned he would be stepping into some mighty high heels.
Among the stars who have played the Dame in England are Elton John, who dressed up as Mother Goose in 1984, and Ian McKellen, who played Widow Twankey in Aladdin in holiday productions from 2004 to 2006.
Mark Shum, actor and business manager at Stage West, is among the local actors who have tackled the Dame. He played Nanny Knickers in the Puss in Boots in which Jones made his panto debut as Puss in 2009. Jones donned a dress, heels and posterior padding for Governess Amplebottom in Babes in the Wood the next year. Now he knows exactly what he’s getting into with Mrs. T Time, the matronly figure who looks after the Beast and helps out when Beauty arrives.
“It’s just a lot of fun,” Jones says. “The audience enjoys it. I love making people smile.”
Among the panto fans are Birch and her husband, Ian Birch, who grew up and married in England. Sue Birch offered the company’s first panto in 1996 because the couple missed the shows so much.
She teamed up with Jackie Mellor-Guin, a fellow English expatriate, who wrote the script and has written all of Theatre Britain’s panto scripts since. Even though the concept was unfamiliar to North Texas audiences, Birch says she never doubted it would be a hit.
“We had great audiences, and we toured it to elementary schools. The kids adored the Dame. They laughed and they clapped.”
That enthusiasm makes the part irresistible for Jones. He knows that the appearance of Mrs. T Time is part of the joke, so he’ll spend as much as an hour on the over-the-top makeup, trying to get it perfect.
He rehearsed for weeks to get comfortable in the heels, which along with the enormous wig designed by Don Hall add several inches to his 6-foot-3 frame. He mastered dancing in heels in an enormous hoop skirt and practiced sitting down without flashing his bloomers. He tried out funny faces in the mirror.
Jones has particularly enjoyed watching his costume, designed by Tory Padden, get progressively more outrageous, with lots of tea bags attached to his dress. In keeping with the tea theme, Padden designed a hat that looks like a teacup and clip-on earrings that dangle actual tea bags.
“I love tea and I love my dress,” Jones says. “I love when the kids come down the line to meet the actors after the show. Sometimes they’ll look at me and get a little intimidated because I’m so tall, so I jump in there and say, ‘I’ll sign this for you!’
“Some of them remember me as Puss from Puss in Boots, but they love me more as the Dame. Seeing the families have fun makes me happy.”